It’s early 2020, and although footwear giant New Balance doesn’t know it yet, the brand’s early commitment to digitizing its design, development, and production has prepared it for what’s around the corner.
A few weeks from now, retail stores will be shuttered. Overseas factories and shipping lanes will close. Domestic production facilities in the UK and New Balance’s native Boston, USA, will stop running. Creative footwear designers, artists, and engineers who are used to working together will have to collaborate remotely.
Above all else, it will soon become impossible to obtain a physical sample, or to touch a new material swatch. And that disruption is going to last longer than anyone could have imagined when it began.
But as the world wakes up to a very different reality, New Balance, whose current motto is “We Got Now,” will be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other – and be future-ready in other ways – thanks to a combination of 3D visualization and physically-accurate digital materials.
“We had made good progress with 3D before the pandemic, but when COVID struck we suddenly had no other choice than to sell our entire range virtually,” Jared Goldman, New Balance’s Senior Director of Design, told The Interline. “Because we had 3D assets of the majority of our shoes, and a comprehensive digital materials library, we were able to keep going – creating believable virtual samples of our shoes. And afterwards, when other alternatives came back, we carried on working digitally. The last year really opened our eyes to what’s possible with digital product creation, and today our designers are still choosing to prototype and sample in 3D, using our digital materials library as a critical channel of communication with our suppliers – because working that way gets us much closer to the finished result, much faster.”
What Goldman described is now the ideal for many brands. The pandemic sparked a goldrush towards 3D and digital product creation, with more than 90% of brand and retail businesses saying that the disruption of 2020/21 had accelerated the need for digitization of their design, development, and merchandising processes. Today, as parts of the planet emerge from under the shadow of COVID and other parts stay firmly submerged, that need for digitization is acute – across creative design, technical development, line review, supplier collaboration, and a host of other areas. From 3D models and digital avatars to accurate digital materials, the requirement for digital assets is at an all-time high.
But as essential as digital design and visualization has become to an industry that finds itself forced to create, produce, and sell digitally, it’s not proving to be the quick fix that many brands hoped it would be. According to research on which The Interline partnered in late 2020, while nearly every brand agreed that digital product creation was a priority, only half had a clearly-defined strategy for making it a cornerstone of their future, and for extending the value of 3D beyond sample replacement.
Here, New Balance could be a guiding light. Many of the brand’s new footwear styles have long, valuable, lives as 3D assets – starting as concept models, where digital design brings flat sketches to life, using accurate digital materials, and running all the way up to confirmation models, where the shoe is approved to enter production. New Balance also deploys the same assets for selling in to its wholesale customers, and renders some at higher fidelity – and with retouching – for retail consumers.
Across all those different interactions, the same 3D model is used for visualization for creative and commercial audiences, and as a tool for both types of users to take action and increase speed to market.
“One of the biggest sources of value in building high-quality 3D assets has been the ability to demonstrate design intent to team members who aren’t designers, and aren’t used to viewing flat sketches and 2D patterns” Goldman said. “The more we can show those audiences of what a design is going to look like in reality, the better-equipped everyone who contributes to the product lifecycle is going to be, and the quicker we’ll be able to reach a finished product that everyone is aligned on.”
But to understand how New Balance was able to weather the storm of COVID and adopt digital product creation in such a comprehensive way, we need to go back to where its 3D design journey began, and to learn how it pulled together some of the same pieces that many other brands are now trying to make fit.
Like a lot of 3D strategies in footwear and apparel, New Balance’s started with a simple desire to do what other industries were already doing.
“Back then, we had designers working in Illustrator, and doing some very limited 3D modelling, but when we looked over the walls at different industries, we noticed just how far 3D visualization had been realized within them,” Goldman added. “Our thinking was that if it’s possible to buy something as complex as a car from a 3D model, then our industry should be able to figure out how to represent a shoe accurately in 3D”.
Many brands who embark on digital design projects quickly arrive at the same question: do we elevate our current creative designers, technical developers, and engineers and train them to work in 3D, or do we hire pre-qualified 3D designers? In New Balance’s case, the choice was to blend existing talent with external expertise, as Goldman explained:
“We quickly found that, to get to a really great finished model, you need 3D experts. So we built a dedicated team for 3D visualization, made up of amazing footwear designers and 3D artists from the movie industry. The quality that combined team is able to build in tools like Modo is incredible – sometimes it can look better than the actual shoe.”
But as New Balance then discovered, having the right talent is only part of the picture, and the need for digital materials – accurate, and interoperable across different 3D solutions – emerged as a barrier that needed to be overcome.
“As we went through the process, we realized that to get a real-looking shoe, you need real-looking materials,” said Goldman. “We tried scanning materials ourselves, with flatbed scanners and digital camera setups, and it was evident that both approaches were going to get expensive quickly. And more importantly, we had to ask ourselves the question – which I think any brand building a digital product creation strategy will have to ask themselves, too – whether we wanted to be in the material scanning business or the product creation business.”
To help answer that question, New Balance evaluated several different approaches, and decided to partner with digital material sourcing platform swatchbook. The swatchbook platform allows brands to access accurate digital replicas of real fabrics, scanned at source by mills and suppliers, and to import those physically-based digital materials into their 3D creation solutions – forging a new, constant connection between material suppliers and brands, who would traditionally have interacted only a few times per year.
“Our initial objective was simple: we needed a tool and a service partner to help digitize the materials we were already sourcing, and to provide them to us in a format we could use in our 3D environments,” Goldman explained. “From that point of view, swatchbook did everything we thought we needed, including integrating to our other enterprise systems, and it was no more complicated than it needed to be.”
But New Balance also saw potential in moving beyond digital materials as an efficiency aid for 3D design and development, and instead began to look at them as a fundamental building block for an all-digital design, sourcing, and production process – one that would see them weather the worst of COVID and also change the way the brand thinks about materials forever.
“Our ambitions for digital product creation have definitely grown, and swatchbook has now become our primary tool for sharing digital materials across our teams, and digitizing our entire materials workflow,” Goldman told us. “We’re now able to curate a completely digital library, share live material data, communicate with our vendors in real-time, and track the materials we’re using – all in one platform. It’s reached the stage today where if a material doesn’t live in that database, it’s far less likely to get used.”
As any brand that has scoped out its own digital product creation and material digitization initiative will know, what a brand wants and what suppliers can provide are two different things. And given that the burden of scanning digital materials falls on those suppliers, this foundation part of the 3D visualization vision could easily fall apart if supply chain partners are not given the right incentive to digitize themselves. Another critical consideration is whether those partners will be able to build the in-house capacity to support digitization to the level of quality required, with material scans being needed at high resolutions, with a complex range of different characteristics captured, if they are to stand in for physical fabrics. To support this, and to aid New Balance’s supplier base in meeting the requisite digital standards, swatchbook’s network of digitization centers in key strategic sourcing locations have become vital links in securing a fully-digital supply chain – one that New Balance is confident opens new doors not just for the brand itself, but for its vendors.
“To understand the mutual benefits of digitization, think about how material suppliers have worked up to this point,” Goldman explained. “There used to be two materials shows in the USA every year, and suppliers would fly to the East and West coasts, spending a few days in each location visiting brands, and they’d have to bring samples of their entire inventory of new materials with them. When suppliers visited us, that was their sole opportunity to interact with our material team and show them new and exciting materials. Today, if a supplier wants to show us a new material every day, they could. Once they’ve digitized their catalogues, they can share that same data with other customers.
As compelling as New Balance’s digitization story is, though, it’s not a story that can be told from one side. So The Interline spent time speaking to Tong Hong Tannery, one of the footwear industry’s largest producers of high quality leathers and a key supplier to New Balance.
“Traditionally, we would design physical materials, produce them in our factory, and then hit the road to present them to brands throughout the US and Europe, carrying hundreds of pounds of physical material swatches,” said Jason Eric Brown, Tong Hong’s Director of Design, Development and Digital. “Today we’re able to present those swatches in an app on a phone, and we can also provide customers like New Balance with photorealistic materials, backed by accurate material data. Working that way, a process that would typically have taken weeks – sending physical material samples back and forth – can be condensed to a couple of days, allowing the designer to quickly validate ideas. And when those ideas need refinement, we can work together to build new color masks or new textures and have them ready to apply to a 3D model straight away. In very short order, swatchbook has become the connective tissue between us, as a supplier, and the brands we work with.”
With a comprehensive, curated library of digital materials as a foundation, New Balance is now beginning to realize entirely new opportunities from its 3D assets – from fostering greater in-house creative freedom, to generating new customer experiences.
“With a physical shoe, we can take great photographs and manipulate them, but we can’t do exploded views, or fly-through animations – both of which we can create from the same 3D assets” Goldman adds. “And if we need to create a new colorway, or add new materials to a similar style from one season to the next, we can visualize that almost instantly in 3D, whereas it would have taken weeks or months to see a physical prototype. There is so much we’re now able to do because we have a central database of materials that we can drag and drop for rapid visualization”.
But while New Balance is advanced in its approach to maximizing the value of 3D visualization, its work is not complete. Like many brands, New Balance’s creative and technical teams are now looking to build on the foundations they stress-tested during the pandemic – although New Balance’s were built strong some time in advance. Now, New Balance plans to move beyond treating digital product creation as a solution to a problem – looking at it instead as a pathway to a more streamlined future.
“I think we’ve proved the possibilities of digital product creation,” Goldman concluded. “From our perspective, a digital shoe can look indistinguishable from the real thing. Now that we’ve reached that goal, we can take a step back and ask where else we can get value from our digital assets. What other parts of our business can we make faster, more efficient, and more creative? We know we can make 3D shoes, with the best possible digital materials, so what other business processes can we transform with those things already in hand?”
Critical to this transformation will be the growth of future talent, with changes to education being needed to open up a pool of digital and hybrid-skilled creatives New Balance and other brands will need to tap into. And this is a challenge that both New Balance and swatchbook are working to get ahead of.
New Balance, along with footwear retail giant Foot Locker, has recently sponsored the footwear design masterclass at PENSOLE Academy, “Designing with Sole”. Each year, the top students are also being given the opportunity at a New Balance internships. Included in their material learnings is a full spectrum of digital product creation and material digitization, equipping them with an enviable skill set that has already allowed many to land sought-after roles at New Balance and other brands.
swatchbook is also investing in the future of digital talent through PENSOLE, working with color and materials Mlab as part of the upcoming masterclass “Designing with Sole.” The goal of this class is make sure that traditionally under-represented voices are given the same opportunity to prepare for the digital-native workflows that are likely to characterize the future of fashion.
Whether it’s 3D design or the use of digital materials in digital product creation and supply chain communication, “digital-native” is a destination every brand that survived the pandemic is now aiming for. And in that sense, New Balance’s experience could provide a path for others to follow.
About our partner: swatchbook is a design & software company that develops applications that make you smile. Founded in 2017, the company focuses on the development of cloud, desktop & mobile software applications that help integrate the creative community within an organization into the product development process. swatchbook is located in sunny Irvine, CA. Its founders share a deep passion for good design & workflow, as well as a deep understanding of the challenges in the digital product development process & the future needs of companies in many industries. For more information, visit www.swatchbook.us.
About New Balance: New Balance Athletics, headquartered in Boston, MA has the following mission: Demonstrating responsible leadership, we build global brands that athletes are proud to wear, associates are proud to create and communities are proud to host. Manufactured in the U.S. for more than 75 years and representing a limited portion of our U.S. sales, New Balance MADE U.S. is a premium collection that contains a domestic value of 70% or greater. New Balance owns and operates four factories in New England and one in Flimby, U.K. New Balance employs more than 7,000 associates around the globe and in 2020 reported worldwide sales of $3.3 billion. To learn more about New Balance, please visit www.newbalance.com and for the latest press information please visit http://newbalance.newsmarket.com
Images throughout this article provided by New Balance and swatchbook.